The question of varietal versus blend comes up often when I’m taking groups through the wine country or conducting wine education seminars. And there seems to be a stereotypic image in the minds of many that blend is a “dirty word” and only the best wines are varietal.
This is definitely a regional phenomenon and one I believe is false. It only serves to intimidate consumers from experimenting with some of the world’s best wines.
The centuries-old custom for wines of the old world (as most of Europe is referred to in the world of wine) has been to name the wine by the region or producer. Historically the consumer identified with that practice.
By this nomenclature old world wines could be blends (e.g. Bordeaux or Chateauneuf-du-Pape) while others were 100 percent varietal (e.g. Burgundy or Barolo). For the most part the consumer was unaware of the varietal composition and often didn’t care. They identified with the wine and not the grape.
In the 1950s and 1960s, American wine writer Frank Shoonmaker — a visionary of his time — and others lead a concerted move in the U.S. to use varietal labeling (the name of the grape) rather than the more universally used “generic” names (Chablis, Burgundy, Chianti, Champagne) to connote quality and identity.
At that time in the industry’s pursuit of excellence and to differentiate U.S. wines, “blend” definitely became a dirty word.
Using time-honored European regional names in the U.S. was often associated with inferior, bulk produced wines that spoke neither of the area named on the label nor included the grapes traditionally used in that region of the old world. Chablis did not necessarily contain chardonnay nor did Burgundy contain pinot noir and Chianti did not need to contain any sangiovese.
But let’s flash-forward to contemporary times and look at what actually defines a blend and varietal. Many of the older brands are still around under a grandfather clause in the 2006 agreement between the U.S. and European Community to end the practice of using the name of classified growing areas unless the wine is actually produced there. This practice continues to give the term blend a tarnished name and image.
But that’s not necessarily the case with many blends emanating from both new and old world producers. The classified chateaux of Bordeaux and other European areas along with many proprietary labels of the Napa Valley (e.g. Opus One, Insignia, Pahlmeyer Red Table Wine) and elsewhere are all blends of various varietals in different proportions and certainly are not considered inferior to varietally labeled cabernet sauvignon or merlot.
Varietally labeled wine is more common to new world areas but there are many exceptions where they appear elsewhere such as eastern Europe, Germany, parts of France, Italy and Spain and others. In the U.S. prior to 1983, any varietally labeled wine had to contain 51percent of that varietal. In 1983, the minimum level was raised to 75 percent where it stands today.
So even varietally labeled wines can be — and often are — blends of compatible varietals but are restricted to the 75 percent rule. Given the nature of many varietals (including cabernet) traditional blending practices can bring out a more balanced and interesting wine than you may have with 100 percent of that varietal. Others such as pinot noir and chardonnay are best on their own.
A proprietary labeled wine (a blend by conjecture) can be more than 75 percent of a lead varietal. But using the proprietary name on the label offers the vintner flexibility from vintage to vintage to determine what is the best wine produced from a particular year. The options for the producer of a varietally labeled wine are more restrictive.
So whether a wine is a blend of compatible varietals or a single varietal is not necessarily the key to greatness. Rather, I choose to look at how the wine expresses itself in the glass and how true it is to its roots (pun intended).
Questions and Comments
My Jan. 11 column — “The 3 Vs of wine” — attracted many comments, observations and questions about a subject of apparent great interest to our readers. Here are just a few.
Jon — Ah, you raise one of the great philosophical problems — and that is around variety characteristics. What do we do with wines we like and are delicious but taste like something else? Is liking the most important trait or is it integrity to the grape? The issue remains of varietal flavor versus just flavor.
From time to time I’ve encountered a wine I would call enjoyable (never great) but could not see the varietal character. I’m not a fan of these wines, and would liken them in some way to the “mystery meat” I was served in school.
Steve — Enjoyed the column, but wanted to know whether the term “International” is a code word for “Robert Parker Influence?” It seems many wines taste the same since the advent of the point scale.
I did not intend to use “international style” as a code but I guess you could arrive at that conclusion. In many ways, the 100-point scorers have dictated a style of wine that appeals to them (i.e high scores). And the proliferation of this style has been adopted in wine grape growing areas around the world regardless of variety or terroir.
Bruce — I would add “V” for “vintner” to your list of Vs. While nature is the most important factor; the ingenuity, skill and care of the human touch is still a necessary element.
There’s no doubt the skill of the vintner (and winemaker) is key to enhance the expression of the varietal, vineyard and vintage in the creation of quality wines.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.